Mail Drag: How to Tame the Email Beast

By David Strom (Forbes ASAP, 10/96)

For some corporations, email has become their lifeblood of communications, keeping their employees connected and productive. But for others, email has become a challenge -- with hundreds of daily incoming messages, how do you get time to do anything else? How can you cope with multiple systems and when you are on the road? Here are some suggestions from our experts.

Before you go out and buy some software, first consider changing some of your email habits. One recommended procedure is to use your inbox as an electronic "to-do" list -- reacting quickly to received messages so that you can keep the number of messages residing in your email's inbox small and manageable. This means that as you receive messages, you quickly scan them first and then file them into various subject- or action-oriented folders for later disposition.

Greg Hubbard, who is a senior systems fellow at SHL Systemhouse, Inc. of Dallas, TX uses two different email systems: Microsoft Mail/Exchange and Lotus' cc:Mail. He says: "I like to keep my inbox fairly clean, and the messages I leave in it are things that I need to deal with immediately. A cluttered inbox would make important messages harder to spot."

You can use some of the automation tools built in to popular email packages such as Microsoft's Exchange, Lotus' cc:Mail, and Qualcomm's Eudora to help manage your own email. These tools include filters or rules that automatically sort your messages into appropriate folders, based on the contents of the message or the identity of the originator. Hubbard says he "sets up some rules in cc:Mail to divert some of my messages into a special folder for later review."

For example, if you get lots of mail from your boss, you might consider having a folder called "boss" where these messages automatically get filed. Then you can act on these messages and find them at a later date. Dave Kosiur is president of Net Reality, a consulting firm in Reston, Virginia who uses Internet and America Online. He says: "I use filters to file incoming mail, especially those messages I receive from mailing lists." Kosiur also uses the highlighting feature of Eudora (which changes their color) for particularly important messages.

There are other features that can help as well, such as the ability to automatically forward email to another person, handy for when people are on vacation or extended trips. Sam Blumenstyk, Assistant Commissioner InSource Consulting Services for New York city government, says "Advanced features such as vacation routing and autoforwarding are important for those secretaries covering for their bosses who are out of the office and can give us the ability to do some low-end workflow kinds of applications."

But be careful when you put these automation tools into practice, otherwise they might have unintended consequences. Daniel Dern is an independent Internet analyst in Newton, MA has an Internet account and MCI Mail account, and gets between 100-200 messages a day. He says: "Like many who have been using email for a decade or more, I remain cynical about the ability of programs to process things safely and accurately in terms of autoresponse." You should send a test message to yourself and see what the contents of the automatic reply is, especially before going away on a long trip.

Another good email habit is to examine the message "header" carefully before sending it -- this is the part of the email that lists the recipient as well as the subject information. Dern says, "If you're responding to a mailing list message and mean to only reply personally to the sender, you don't want to reach the entire group. Even if you're replying to a person-to-person message, you want to eyeball the "reply-to" address your mail program automatically inserted, to see if it looks right." Some email systems may not automatically insert the correct reply address, which can happen when you are replying to messages sent via a mailing list program.

Dern's biggest issue hasn't to do with volume, but with compatibility when he exchanges email with his many correspondents. "My immediate greatest need is for other people to know when they aren't sending clear text." Many email systems don't handle attachments well or at all: the best strategy when sending mail is to avoid attaching any files until you have established that your correspondent can receive them and read them as intended. And good email etiquette is to ask before sending a large (greater than 150 kilobytes) attached file: many people are using email via slow modems and don't appreciate having to wait while all these bits trickle in.

Another idea is to keep all of your email on a single machine, such as a laptop that you can move from your office to home to hotel. This makes email management a snap, since you are always getting your mail in a single place. You still need to figure out how to connect your laptop to your office network and then to a modem when you are on the road, so you could be trading one problem for another.

Steve York, vice president Information Technology, Deluxe Labs North America, Los Angeles, CA, has solved that problem: "I use my laptop for access to Notes and the Internet since these systems are in other offices -- I am always a remote user even when I am in my own office."

If you can't run your entire desktop on a single laptop, then figure out a system that allows you to keep your mail in a single place, such as on your office network, and copy the files that you need when you travel. Some products, such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange, have the ability to copy your mail when you move from desktop to laptop, a feature that Barry Gerber finds handy: "My email software, Exchange, gives me the same view of my mail remotely that I see in my office." Gerber is Chief Information Officer at UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital, Los Angeles, CA and gets over 50 messages daily.

But sometimes you may have to travel without a computer. Kosiur says that "If I don't have a laptop when I am on the road, I find a public machine such as at a library or a cybercafe and then use Netscape Navigator's email feature to check my messages." This works well for Internet email accounts, but not so well if your email resides on Lotus or Microsoft servers. A listing of cybercafes can be found on Yahoo, and now many urban libraries and computer rental places have Internet connections as well. And there is always the suggestion from Hubbard: "I ignore mail when I am traveling, usually since my trips are short."

But all these tips are more for being more productive with a single email package. What happens when you have multiple email identities, such as maintaining an Internet account along with mailboxes on CompuServe and MCI Mail? Then you might want to consider buying a product that can collect email from several sources, such as Global Village's Focal Point, ConnectSoft's Email connection, (both for Windows) and Claris' Emailer (for the Macintosh). Kosiur says that "Claris Emailer has all the features I need in a well-designed package." Gerber, who runs a 400-seat network with Microsoft Exchange at UCLA, says that this software "can collect mail from MS Mail, Exchange, and the Internet in a single mailbox." But Dern injects a note of caution: "I am cynical about products that try to do too many things."

If you have to have multiple email identities, make sure you tell your clients and potential clients where to find you in cyberspace. Make it clear which one or ones you check most often, so that messages don't languish unread. And if you are about to send some email to a new correspondent whom you suspect has multiple email personalities, you might want to phone first and make sure that they check that particular mailbox regularly. "I got a message from a client wanting me to speak at a conference," says Dern, "but they sent it to my CompuServe account, which I don't list anywhere as one of my email addresses, and check less than monthly. What led them to think that I read this account?"

One idea that is gaining more common practice is to take Thoreau's advice and simplify by reducing the overall diversity of email systems supported in your corporation. This is usually accomplished by adding special software, called email gateways (see Forbes ASAP 6/94) that connect dissimilar systems together. Products are available for most major email systems to do this, although the care and feeding of a gateway can be trying for even the most experienced of computer-savvy staffs.

Blumenstyk says the New York city government runs Lotus' SoftSwitch Central on its IBM mainframes for this purpose, knitting together a potpourri of email systems.

Once gateways are installed, you can start eliminating duplicate email systems, or moving towards fewer products that do the same job. This is what York did: "There were at least five different systems two years ago, and we are moving to convert to Notes as our corporate standard to eliminate the lack of connectivity." At York's Deluxe Labs, there are 2500 users on Lotus Notes and 10,000 others on MS Mail and Internet email using Netscape.

Copyright 1996 Forbes